After spending years feeling as if she was invisible, we’re celebrating as Veronica Ryan’s contemplative sculptures were rewarded the much-deserved Turner Prize 2022.
At 66, Ryan becomes the oldest artist to have won the Turner Prize, a perfect depiction to sum up the life of a woman familiar with forging her own path and authentically following her truth. Ryan was keen to break out of the mould of 70s and 80s British modernism as an art student. In 1980, she was awarded a Boise Travelling Scholarship from the Slade and chose to visit Nigeria. There, she became especially interested in the re-adaptation of everyday consumables, including food and ephemeral waste materials, into amulets and charms used in spiritual offerings and shrines. She describes; “in a village outside Lagos, I saw objects, seeds, gourds and different kinds of things wrapped together and hung on trees, as some sort of protection.” The influence of these votive objects can be seen in her work today: transient amulets, things that carry a certain potency.
At around the same time, there was the rise of the British Black Arts Movement, headed by artists such as Rasheed Araeen, Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid and Maud Sulter to name just a few. She took part in the 1983 exhibition Black Women Time Now. However, Ryan clarifies that her work should not be pinned exclusively to race: “all along I have had various people be very critical of me because I did not fit into their politicised agenda.” The quest for meaning in Ryan’s work has often led to ambiguity: the repetition of seeds and fruit, things that speak of trade, movement, and colonial history, as well as her own history as someone who was brought to live in Britain from Montserrat as a young child. Seed pods and fruits also allude to cycles of life, motherhood, death and rebirth; to concerns over environmental breakdown. But Ryan resists the notion that her work is “about” any one thing. “It’s always about this but also this and this….”
Ryan’s preferred materials range from cement, bronze, lead and painted plaster, to lighter and more temporary materials like paper, dust, flowers and feathers. Her works are organic, abstract and tend towards the biomorphic, appealing to forms like pods, shells, husks and seeds. Often placed directly on the floor, her work appears as if left by nature, spontaneously growing from the ground, or beautifully composed debris after a strong storm.
Her room at the Tate Liverpool’s Turner prize exhibition is contemplative, full of delicate sculptures. Despite their modest scale, they exude power. An old plastic bottle is held in a net container. Magnolia pods have been cast in bronze, then clustered and dangled with fishing line. Her sculptures are meditative and poetic, their meanings leaving you ruminating. Their shapes and compositions leave a marked imprint on your mind. In her acceptance speech for the Turner Prize she spoke of her time “collecting rubbish”. As a mother trying to make ends meet and an artist without a budget, she explains that she would make work from what she could scavenge or garner for nothing – sculptures made from vegetable packaging and cardboard avocado trays from the market. However, this thrifty quality to her work was no accident, she was also thinking about wider political questions with landfills of toxic waste being exported, our throw-away disposable relationship to packaging means that poorer countries are the recipients of the west’s overindulgence.
In 2021, Ryan’s three-piece marble and bronze sculpture was unveiled in Hackney as London’s first permanent public monument celebrating the Windrush generation. The sculpture depicts three Caribbean fruits: Custard Apple (Annonaceae), Breadfruit (Moraceae) and Soursop (Annonaceae). Not only was it the first sculpture to immortalise the powerful memory of those from the Windrush Scandal, which saw hundreds of elderly people of Caribbean heritage who had lived in Britain for decades detained or deported, purportedly for not having the right visa. It was also the first permanent public sculpture by a black female artist in the UK, “we’re talking about British people. It is absolutely shameful. I remember, as a child, the adults around me, dealing with complications. Which is my parents’ trauma? Which is my trauma? They’re indistinguishable.” The decades of tender and potent thought behind her delicate sculptures is both thought-provoking and incredibly moving: capsules, divisions, compartments, boxes; all metaphors for wider issues of dissociation, fracture, displacement, alienation and growth.